We started our stay by a free, guided tour—our essential first step to begin our integration into a new city.
Habits die hard!
We join our group in Lisbon’s main square, the “Commerce Square.”
A little history to start with
I didn’t know what to expect when I first came to Portugal, apart from the beach, the sun, and their pastries. The Pastéis de Nata are incredible!
But then I discovered the history of this small country in which Lisbon played a big part.
Lisbon’s geographical location
Lisbon is situated at the mouth of the “Tagus,” the Iberian Peninsula’s biggest river, which has its source in Spain and flows here into the Atlantic Ocean.
Because of this geographical location, Lisbon’s port became a significant trade axis between the Mediterranean Sea and Northern Europe. It is also on the trade road between sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas.
Lisbon, a wealthy city
This location and the colonization of several countries—in Asia, America, and the Atlantic Islands, made Lisbon one of the world’s wealthiest cities in the 16th century.
Many foreign traders came here to develop their business. Some converted to Christianity to be allowed to stay. They were named the “new Christians”—as opposed to the “ancient Christians.” Unfortunately, years later, the new king introduced the Inquisition. As a result, many “new Christians” traders had to flee to northern countries. Only “ancient Christians” had, from then, the right to reside and bargain in Portugal. Lisbon was gradually getting poorer.
But the end of Lisbon was hastened by the earthquake of November 1, 1755, which destroyed two-thirds of the city.
The Lisbon earthquake
This earthquake was the largest ever recorded. It took place on November 1, at 9:40 am, when most Lisbon’s inhabitants attended Mass. Two more tremors followed, as well as a 7-meter high tsunami on the Tagus River.
Of Lisbon’s 180,000 inhabitants, between 30,000 and 60,000 have died.
The entire world widely discussed this catastrophe. The main reason was that it happened on a Holy Day, during the mass time.
European philosophers and intellectuals questioned themselves. Why would God punish a city like Lisbon, Catholic, and devoted in such a manner? Is there any other power than God that could rule the world?
The reconstruction of Lisbon
King Joseph I ordered his prime minister, the “Marquis of Pombal,” to reconstruct the town. The main priorities were to rebuild quickly and with an anti-seismic structure.
Its name was the “Pombal cage.”
It was a wooden rectangle reinforced with diagonal braces that could withstand an earthquake’s overload and stress. The structure was installed in the walls and covered with building materials. To test its resistance, The Pombal Marquis built a prototype he installed in a square. He then asked the army to walk around stomping their feet to simulate an earthquake. And it worked, the structure resisted!
The project for the new Lisbon
The new town was built around the Commerce Square—the former Palace of Ribeiro’s terrace, Portugal’s kings’ principal residence.
Urban planners innovated. They replaced the narrow streets with broad straight avenues placed orthogonally and created neighborhoods by commercial activity. To allow a faster reconstruction, they standardized the buildings and introduced mass production. It was also the beginning of the prefabricated. To top it all and make the city safer, builders separated each apartment from the others by masonry walls that acted as firewalls.
Architects decided as well, the repartition of the inhabitants in the buildings. They gave the first floors for shops, offices, or wealthy people when the upper floors were for the poorest. As they had less furniture, it was lighter on the ground. They also had smaller windows and shared balconies.
If you want more details and an interactive tour of the city, go to the Lisboa Story Center, located in the Praça do Comércio
The tourist Lisbon
Back in our visit. We stood at the foot of the dedicated statue of King Joseph I. This statue was raised during the king’s lifetime and was, a priori, inaugurated with pomp and circumstance. It’s a little surprising when you study the sculpture, which is not very flattering.
The famous statue
The king sits on a horse that looks more like a pony with a bow tied to its tail. He wears a cape and a feathered helmet, holds in his hand not a sword but a kind of magic wand, and worst of all, he turns his back on his city.
The Lisbon’s inhabitants of the time never forgave him for his cowardice. Following the earthquake, he left Lisbon to settle in his surroundings because he was traumatized by the quake. He then asked his court to live in a camp where they stayed until his death.
Before leaving the square, we admire the banks of the Tagus and the multicolored stone sculptures.
The pedestrian city
The gate that connects the Praça do Comércio to the city.
We began our discovery of the city by the “Baixa district” in Lisbon’s historic center. It is one of the most popular and tourist areas. Many streets are pedestrian, and it’s a real pleasure to walk around here even if it’s a little too crowded for me. The buildings are beautiful; there are lots of shops, restaurants, and pastries.
The good surprise was that we stopped in one of those pastries to taste our first “Pastel de Nata“—a Portuguese custard tart, the region’s specialty. It was, for sure, the best way to start our tour!
To be accurate, the Pastel de Nata is from Belém. It’s a neighboring Lisbon town where one can find the pastry shop that invented these little tarts. It seems they are delicious! If you feel like it and you’re patient, you can always go there and queue to taste them.
After this delight, we went up towards “Bairro Alto et Chiado,” a district on Lisbon’s heights. The city is built in the middle of the hills. You should, therefore, expect to climb stairs or steep streets often.
Sometimes, it’s hard for older people to go out of their homes because of the stairs. So to help the inhabitants get around, the city built elevators. One can found them all over the old town. But the best known is the “Santa Justa” elevator. It is so beautiful and original that it has become a tourist attraction.
It has a little air of Eiffel Tower for me.
It connects the lower town to the upper town and took us to the ruins of the Convento da Ordem do Carmo. This medieval convent was destroyed during the earthquake and has never been rebuilt. All that remains from the past is the Gothic church’s facade, the largest in Lisbon at the time.
A visit in pictures
Tavares Restaurant, opened in 1784, is the oldest coffee in Lisbon. And one of the first to introduce espresso. The barmaid had to add a lot of sugar for the people of Lisbon to appreciate it!
In front of Tavares, where he liked to go, Eça de Queirós, the greatest Portuguese writer who wrote in the realistic style.
The story says Eça de Queirós had dissociative identity disorder—although, at the time, doctors didn’t diagnose him as such. The thing is that all the characters that haunted him talked together. So, to make it more lifelike, each time he embodied a different personality, he took another seat around the table. These characters became the heroes of his books. 😉 😉
Opposite, and who made us think of a rapper by his position, the poet Antonio Ribeiro called Chiado. This monk chose to abandon the cloistered life to be able to give free rein to his verve and enjoy the “joie de vivre” of this time. He will end up as the most beloved poet of the people.
Place Camões. Luis de Camões is one of the greatest poets in Portugal. He is the author of Os Lusíadas, The Lusiads, recognized as the most important work in Portuguese literature. It narrates the discovery of a sea route to India by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama (1469-1524).
He has a blindfold following a peaceful demonstration by a group denouncing the lack of resources allocated to culture.
Another older one… but this time it’s the oldest Fado bar.
Going to listen to Fado is a must if you are staying in Lisbon.
It’s a Portuguese musical genre. It all started when the fishermen’s wives met at the wash house and talked about their lives while singing. Songs with sad tunes and words telling their poor life and sung with a feeling of resignation. Now there are male artists, but the soul of Fado has remained the same.
Place Rossio, or King Pedro IV’s square. It is located in the city center, and has been a very popular place since the Middle Ages, place of revolts and executions.
The statue that sits is King Pedro IV, Emperor of Brazil and son of the King of Portugal, …
… but some say that it would be the statue of a Russian tsar, and that there would have been a small mix at the time of its construction 😃
Next to Rossio square, the Cinema do Rossio. The… oldest cinema in Lisbon. 😊
Now it offers shows for adults!
Discovery of another district, Alfama
Our tour finished, we went back to the Tagus river. We walked along the Praça do Comércio, took the “Rua da Alfândega” towards the “Mirador of Saint Lucia“, which offers one of the most beautiful views of the city.
It’s a different ride. Old Lisbon has not changed, the alleys are narrow and the climb up the stairs is steep.
There is a lot of mutual aid in these neighborhoods.
Seniors or people with reduced mobility who cannot leave their homes because of the stairs rely on their neighbors to take care of them, often in exchange for small services. These communities are very united and proud.
One last funny thing. There is always someone at a window watching you. At first, we feel spied on, but it’s their way of being less alone. CCTV in action 😁
We pass in front of the Saramago Foundation with its original architecture.
This building withstood the earthquake. Its construction was influenced by the palaces of the Italian renaissance and the Portuguese Manueline style. It was built by the governor of “Portuguese India” which was at this time a state representing the Portuguese colonies in India.
Finally, we reach the viewpoint and can admire the impressive view of the city. It is really the ideal place to end the visit. There are plenty of terraces where you can sit and recover from our hours of walking, and enjoy a Vinho Verde.
The name means “green wine”, but it can also be called “young wine”. The wine is bottled three to six months after the grapes are harvested. They can be red, white or pink, and exist in sparkling wines, late harvests, and even brandy. The choice is yours!
Street art at Lisbon
Another curiosity of Lisbon! There are many works of art in the city.
And it is a delight to discover them around a street.
Nearby, not to be missed
There is a nice walk to do along the Tagus river, which goes from the Praça do Comércio to Santa Maria de Belém, or Belém. 😁Of course, you can do it by walking or running, but the best is to rent an electric bike. There are quite a few here, and it’s really nice. Otherwise, train, tram, or bus.
Beautiful monuments to discover, and perhaps the Pastel de Nata! Do you remember?
The “April 25 Bridge” which links Almada and Lisbon. This bridge was previously called the “Salazar Bridge”, from the name of the dictator who ordered its construction. But on 25 April 1974, the day of his dismissal following a revolutionary movement, the name of the bridge was changed.
The most remarkable thing about Lisbon is that the city has kept its authenticity and do what’s needed to remain beautiful. The Praça do Comércio and its surroundings still have their former splendor. The alleys of old Lisbon take the visitor back to the past, and it is pleasant to see the “village” spirit which still reigns in each district. Many parks welcome you on the heights to offer you panoramic views and enjoy the present moment.
The climate also contributes to this feeling of well-being. The sun often shines, and the blue of the sky is perfect. Despite everything, the ocean cools the temperature, and I must admit that a sweater was always welcome to fully appreciate the evenings outside.
My list would not be complete if I didn’t mention the warm welcome we had throughout our stay.
Despite this, Lisbon is a modern city on the move, and its new districts also have their buildings!